Objectivity Doesn’t Exist (And That’s A Good Thing)

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth.  So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective.  Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience.  While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).

Researchers Are Human

In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful.  I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s).  In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd.  I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.

Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness.  Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.*  There are few people in the US — the world even — like me.  And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world.  I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness.  I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research.  And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.

In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born.  In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews.  There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination.  But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized.  It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.

In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn.  I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health.  In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination.  I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research.  But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections.  (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)

Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective.  Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it).  In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons.  Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.

Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities.  Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences?  With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.?  Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career?  By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.

Personal Motivations For Research

No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study.  Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research.  Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:

It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.

I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study.  Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism.  The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color.  I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry.  Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work.  Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?

I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study.  For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses.  Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome.  (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.)  But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses.  If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health.  A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.

And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published.  To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia.  There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom.  But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.

There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.”  In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower.  I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School, by Race/Ethnicity

Embrace Your Inner Unicorn

To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must.  But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.

Can we stop pretending objectivity exists?  Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons?  Conformity is overrated.  And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education.  Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place.   Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education.  Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!

___

NOTES

* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color.  We’re already below 1% of the population here.  Narrow that to multiracial gay men.  And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs.  Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.

14 thoughts on “Objectivity Doesn’t Exist (And That’s A Good Thing)

  1. Dear Eric:

    Thank you so much for including me in your reflection. I feel honored. I also admit that yes, my emotions drive my research. Why would I be interested in access to proper sanitation if it didn’t pain me to see how many girls lose days of school because they lack the dignity of a toilet to relieve themselves during menstruating days? Pain and empathy are very strong drivers for my research.

    Beautiful reflection, must read for everyone on the field and doing research that involves human subjects.

    Like

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